When you grow up in countries outside of your passport country, the difficulties of repatriation can blindside you. Adult TCK Jessi Vance reminds TCKs to dip into your TCK superpowers to get through that transition.
By Jessi Vance
I could swear in three other languages before I learned the same words in my “passport” language. While a fun party trick now, in my international middle school this was as normal as eating a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich with chopsticks. Which may sound far from normal if you’ve never met a Third Culture Kid (TCK), but for us it was entirely commonplace.
Third Culture Kids are a blend of the countries they have inhabited during their developmental years and for my U.S.-born, Uzbekistan-raised thirteen-year-old self, I had lived more of those in my host countries.
I was entering seventh grade the year my parents decided to spend some significant time in what they called our “home” country. American was what I learned from L.L. Bean catalogs and Little House on the Prairie reruns. American was the jars of peanut butter we kept stashed away and the smell of my grandmother’s closet. American was a title I clung to when I felt out of place in the country I called “home” — Uzbekistan — different from the country my parents identified with.
A Foreigner at “Home”
America was more foreign to this cross-cultural kid than jostling with brightly colored shoulders that shunned the need for Western deodorant in a bazaar overflowing with cumin dust, smoked sage, and fresh bread. America was as strange as wearing seat belts and putting ice in drinks.
However, no one mentioned this to me. Instead, I joined my seventh-grade peers for the first day of school, oblivious to my foreign self and assuming that my navy and eagle-embossed passport carried the magic of finally fitting in without any questions asked.
I walked into my first day of school with a lot of assumptions. I, like most TCKs do, assumed that my outsides, the parts of me that matched the other thirteen-year-olds lining up on either side of me, would mean I matched inside too. I assumed that my freckled nose and the mostly American accent I owned would equal diplomatic immunity in the middle-school pecking order.
I assumed that because I called myself American, because I’d been told this was my home and because my parents belonged here, that I also belonged. I assumed that the belonging that had evaded my years of being a grayscale foreigner in a vibrant land would finally fade.
As it turned out, the azure of Uzbek mosques and the indigo of sun-drenched grapes had soaked beneath my skin. I was too colorful to fit in here.
I didn’t tuck my school uniform the right way, I didn’t drool at the name of popular boy bands (I didn’t even know the difference between them!). I told stories that began, “When I was living in…,” identified more with differences than similarities, and didn’t know the rules of the culture, like how girls who were just friends didn’t hold hands.
The day I learned an English swear word I was in the back of a small Speech & Debate class listening to a mediocre rendition of “How I Organize My Closet.” The boy was labeling items on the whiteboard as he spoke, and when he got to “shirt,” he spelled it s - h - i - t.
The classroom erupted in laughter. The teacher sent him to the principal’s office. I sat there absolutely terrified to go next considering that I had just learned that in this crazy country you got in trouble for spelling a word wrong!
I was so awkward. So innocent. So out of place. So Russian. So deeply “other.” I held an American passport and a very American name, but that was it.
It was actually a few years later that I put two and two together and realized the laughter and punishment weren't for a spelling error, but for what he had spelled. It was around the same time that I realized if I were to survive another year in my passport country, I needed to change my approach.
Tapping into TCK skills
The thing is, as a TCK, I hadn’t just inherited a complex identity. I had also gained the skills to adapt to a new culture. I had watched and learned and assimilated into a new school environment many times. I was confident on public transportation, good at communication, and a natural haggler.
I had learned more than a second language — I had learned how to belong anywhere. Why was it that I let my learned experiences and international identity abandon me when faced with a classroom of American peers?
The popular 2004 movie, Mean Girls portrays the main character and TCK, Kady, comparing her new classmates to her experience of safari wildlife. She used the skills she had to understand a whole new form of wild beasts. It’s satirical, but a point any TCK anticipating repatriation should take note of.
Assume your passport country is as foreign as the next one.
Don’t assume that a shared language equals fluency in slang or etiquette.
As always, observe before acting.
Flex the adaptability muscles you’ve worked so hard to build and take your time learning this “new” culture.
Find community with other international or minority students.
Dear TCK, or those of you raising one, if you’re anticipating repatriation, give yourself patience. Give yourself time for the natural progression of cultural assimilation to take place without the pressure of the things you “should” know or understand.
Jessi Vance grew up in Uzbekistan and graduated from Hope International University with a specialized degree in Third Culture Kid Care and a desire to help families just like hers who were spending their most formative years between cultures. In 2013, Jessi founded Kaleidoscope, a non-profit committed to seeing TCKs not just survive but thrive. She channels all of her creative energy into new and exciting ways to engage TCKs, wherever they are in the world. Jessi is a 2020 David C. Pollock Scholar. Read her profile here, or find her on Instagram @jessi_rue or @kldscp.